Will the real European Left stand up?

Manifestation du Front de Gauche [ 18 Mars , Bastille ]

This article by Murray Smith was written as a contribution to the debate around the Left Unity initiative which followed Ken Loach’s call for a new left party, and in response to a contributor who instead argued for building the left within the Labour Party. Murray is a member of the anti-capitalist party déi Lenk in Luxembourg, and of the Executive Board of the Party of the European Left.

Having followed with sympathy the emergence of Left Unity and the possibility of a new party of the Left being launched, I read with interest the two-part article by an anonymous figure, who may or may not be called Michael Ford, which may or may not be a pseudonym. I’m sure we’ll find out. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to him as Ford. In any case, whoever wrote it, the aim of the article is clearly to try and discredit the perspective of building a new party to the left of Labour and validate that of working with/within the Labour Party to drive it to the left. There will undoubtedly be many replies to Ford from people who are directly involved in politics in Britain, which I am not at present. However, an important part of Ford’s argument is to try and demonstrate that the political forces to the left of social democracy in Europe don’t amount to much, either politically or in terms of their support. In doing so, frankly, he paints a picture which has little relation to reality. This is what I want to take up (1).

At the end of the first part of his article Ford writes: “The traditions of the British labour movement are in many respects worse than those in the countries listed.  That can be debated, but they are unarguably enormously different.” That is certainly true. The British labour movement  has features which are unique in Europe. In particular, this is true of the Labour Party, in the sense of trade union affiliation and the role of the unions in the party. But is the difference absolute or only relative? If you compare Britain with France it looks pretty absolute. If the comparison is made with Northern Europe (Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands…), it is much less so. In those countries you have mass social-democratic parties which have historically had the loyalty of most of the working class and mass, unitary trade unions which have supported these parties. Quite a different picture to that of Southern Europe with mass communist parties and divided trade unions and where the (electoral) dominance of social democracy dates only from the 1970s. Nevertheless there are significant parties which are not only to the left of social democracy but are clearly anti-capitalist in both Northern and Southern Europe. They are stronger in the South than in the North, but that is to be expected.

Filling the space on the left

Let us look at what is common to the whole of Europe. The first thing is that social democracy is now, and has been for some time, part of the neo-liberal consensus. Not without internal tensions, in some cases. The second thing is that as a result, globally and with ups and downs, but overall, it is losing support from its traditional supporters and a space is opening up to the left. Now a space is not the same as a vacuum, which as we know Nature abhors, and which will be filled automatically by something or other. The space to the left of social democracy consists of people, real living people who have had enough of parties which betray their hopes, which no longer defend them but attack them. As a result they may be open to a party or parties which offer another perspective, one that breaks with the neo-liberal consensus. Whether this possibility becomes reality, and to what extent, depends on politics – on political action, on the ability of anti-capitalist forces to come together and to offer political perspectives.

Of course the space to the left of social democracy has never been empty, nor is it now. There are the Communist parties or their successor parties; there are the various far-left groups, mostly Trotskyist; there are the Greens, which in some countries at least are to the left of social democracy.

Communist Parties

First of all, let us look at the Communist parties, because the way in which Ford approaches them is the most at variance with reality. He writes: “Communist parties have disappeared or been reduced to the margins (with a few exceptions) and, in the case of many of the former ruling parties, openly converted to social-democracy and, hence, variants of neo-liberalism”.

The second part of his statement is certainly true as regards most (but not all) of the former ruling parties in Eastern Europe. The first part is a strange thing to write in 2013, though Ford is not alone in holding this opinion. Ten, twelve or fifteen years ago I thought that the West European Communist Parties would either disappear, become social-democratized (or become satellites of social democracy) or subsist as diminishing and marginal “orthodox” sects. That is not the course events have taken. The only West European party to have simply gone over to social democracy (and indeed beyond it) was the Italian Communist Party, at the price of an important split. The only party to have simply dissolved is the British one. There is a series of parties which consider themselves orthodox but which in most countries are quite weak and marginal, with the notable exceptions of the Greek (KKE)and Portuguese (PCP)parties. Then there are those communist parties which are part of the Party of the European Left (EL).

This is the Euro-Left which is the main target of Ford’s criticism, so let us deal with that. In the first place, he writes at one point: “on the basis of this short summary [in which he covers Greece, France, Italy and Germany, M.S.] we can say that the euro-left is hardly decisive outside Greece, that it polls less than when it was explicitly Communist in times gone by…”. In times gone by…well, the times when it was enough to be explicitly Communist and to defend “Soviet socialism” have indeed gone by, and they’re not coming back.  At another point, in relation to France, he writes: “the Left Front polls less than half of the vote secured a generation or so ago by the PCF”. You have to go back to 1978 to find the PCF polling more than 20 per cent in a national election. Since then, in that “generation or so” rather a lot has happened: the neo-liberal offensive, a change in the relationship of class forces within countries and on a global scale, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the ideological offensive, “the end of history”…That does not only affect the European Left.  The Portuguese Communist Party, which is explicitly Communist (as, by the way, are the French, Spanish, Austrian, etc.) and not part of the EL, was getting 15-20 per cent in the 1970s and 80s and less than 10 per cent from the early 90s until 2011. Of course, not everything can be explained by the broad objective factors mentioned above. Political choices can make things better or worse. The PCF paid a certain price for its participation in the Jospin government from 1997-2002 and also from an ill-conceived presidential campaign in 2007. Conversely, it has benefited from its role in the 2005 referendum campaign, from its increasingly clear differentiation from the Socialist Party and from the strategy of the Left Front.

Europe’s Anti-Capitalist Left

Now let us take up “hardly decisive outside Greece”.  In fact, Greece is the most advanced point of a tendency towards the strengthening of parties to the left of social democracy which is also evident in other countries. In Denmark the Red-Green Alliance was formed in 1989 (not the best year to launch an anti-capitalist party, one might think) by the Danish Communist Party, the Danish section of the Fourth International, Left Socialists and Maoists. It has been in Parliament  since 1994 and has patiently established itself as apolitical force over the years. It is now stronger than it has ever been ever been with over 10,000 members . At the last election in 2011 it won 6.7 per cent of the vote and 12 MPs. In the latest opinion poll it has 14.9 per cent, as against 16.1 per cent for the social-democrats who head the centre-left government. In Portugal the Left Bloc was formed in 1999 by forces from Trotskyist and Maoist backgrounds along with a current from the PCP. From there it grew rapidly and progressed at each election until 2011, when it suffered a serious setback in elections conducted under the shadow of the Troika, falling to just over 5 per cent. In the latest opinion poll the Bloc has 8.8 per cent and the PCP 12.1 per cent, a total of 21 per cent. Fortunately the PCP is not as sectarian as the KKE and there is some collaboration between it and the Left Bloc.

In Spain the Communist Party is the core of the United Left, which was established in 1986 in the continuity of the campaign against Spain joining NATO. Its record has been somewhat chequered over the years. However in the last period IU has progressed in the national elections in 2011 and in regional elections and currently stands at around 16 per cent in the opinion polls. This is not an automatic result of the crisis; it is the result of a clear positioning to the left of social democracy on the one hand, presence in all the movements of resistance to austerity and other a willingness to work with the new social movements, not always without problems.

Concerning France, it might have seemed, in the 1990s, under the stewardship of Robert Hue and with the PCF’s participation in the Jospin government from 1997-2002, that the PCF was destined to become a satellite of the Socialist Party (PS) and/or to disintegrate. However that is not what happened – although Hue and a few followers subsequently left the PCF and now constitute a small group which is precisely a satellite of the PS. Through a process of political clarification that was not always easy,  under Marie-George Buffet as national secretary from 2001-2010, succeeded by Pierre Laurent, the party began to be rebuilt, with a clear differentiation from the Socialist Party and readiness to work with other forces on the left. This was first clearly seen in the campaign against the proposed European constitution in 2005. It was crystallized with the formation of the Left Front in 2009.  With this orientation the PCF halted its decline and began to recruit from 2005 onwards. In the 2012 elections not only did Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon get 11 per cent in the presidential election (the best vote for a candidate to the left of the PS since 1981), but the results of the legislative elections, where most of the candidates were PCF, were in 90 per cent of constituencies superior to 2007. The Left Front has progressed in each election where it has stood (European 2009, regional 2010, local 2011, presidential and legislative 2012). It now involves nine organizations, including not only the PCF and the Left Party, formed by Mélenchon when he left the PS in 2008, but three organizations from an LCR-NPA background.

And of course it is not just about elections; on May 5 a demonstration called by the Left Front mobilized well over a hundred thousand people – a massive expression of protest against the austerity policies of Hollande.

The PCF

A final word on the PCF: I attended its 36th congress in February as an observer. To put it very succinctly, what I did not see was a party that was in crisis, aging, shrunken, without a strategy and thinking of nothing else but how to get into government. In other words, not what has been the staple fare of commentaries in the bourgeois press and by some on the left for quite a few years now. What I did see was a party full of confidence, with many young people, whose discussions centred on how to organize the fightback against Hollande’ s policies and build a political alternative. Of the delegates, 20 per cent were under 30 and 30 per cent had joined in the last five years. And of course three-quarters of them were wage-earners.

The examples above show the reality and the potential of forces to the left of social democracy in Europe. But there also some problems. Since its breakthroughs in the 2005 and 2009 federal elections and in regional elections in the West, Die Linke has experienced difficulties and setbacks. In the first place there are objective reasons.  At the present time a large part of the German working class is enjoying prosperity and is not so open to the discourse of the Left. There are also problems of integrating the components of Die Linke in the East and the West. In the East the PDS was one of only two former ruling parties in the Soviet bloc not to embrace the process of capitalist restoration (the other was what is now the CPBM in the CzechRepublic).  As a result it has a solid base of support over 20 per cent in several Lander and a network of local councilors. In the West the forces coming from the SPD and the radical Left had to start pretty much from scratch, with the exception of Oskar Lafontaine’s base in the Saar. As things stand now, however, the situation is difficult but certainly not catastrophic and unless there is a very big upset Die Linke will keep its parliamentary group. In Italy the situation is much worse. The participation of the PRC in the Prodi government from 2006-08 cost it much of its electoral support, including, but not only, because of its backing for sending Italian troops to Afghanistan. In 2008 it lost all its parliamentary representation, split almost 50-50 and has since then been in difficulties, waging an unsuccessful campaign in what was admittedly a very difficult election in February. It must also be said that none of the three left groups which split from Rifondazione in 2006-08 has since made any impact. It will not be easy to rebuild the Left in Italy, but Rifondazione remains the starting-point.

Syriza and Greece

The case of Greece and Syriza merits a few remarks. Since Syriza made its electoral breakthrough in 2012, everyone on the left in Europe has had to sit up and take notice. But Syriza did not fall from the sky. Its central component, Synaspismos, is a product of a complex process of splits and realignments in the Greek communist movement that began in 1968. And the Syriza coalition (now in the process of becoming a party), which was created in 2004, and drew in currents from Eurocommunism, Trotskyism and Maoism, was the result of a political choice by Syriza; Nor was the success of Syriza a mechanical effect of the crisis. It was the result of a political orientation that combined an absolute refusal of austerity and the diktats of the Troika and the proposal to other forces on the left to form a government of the Left – a proposal refused by both the Democratic Left and the KKE.

How does Ford characterize the European Left politically? “The euro-Left parties stand to the left of contemporary social democracy in advocating more radical measures, in varying degrees, to tackle the economic crisis. They are, on the other hand, constitutional and electoral parties – they do not aim at revolution.  Their measure is electoral support which they seek to secure through advocating pro-welfare and egalitarian policies which broadly mitigate the effects of the slump on the working-class. Their ultimate aim may be a socialist society (although this is not always clear), but it is to be attained primarily by parliamentary means.  Broadly they disown the record of socialism and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century”.  And elsewhere “they are explicitly reformist”. And, pride of place for this one, “the summit of the ambitions of the Left parties Europe-wide at present is to secure enough parliamentary seats to be considered a coalition partner in a government which would be dominated by the “old” social democratic parties”. Firstly, of all, broadly, in my experience, these parties do not disown the record of socialism and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century. They may interpret it more or less critically, and not all in the same way, and often not exactly as I would, but they certainly do not disown it. Perhaps Ford means that they do not agree with his version of that record, which on the basis of various references in his document, seems to be rather neo-Stalinist. Secondly, concerning the “summit of their ambitions”. Perhaps Ford would like to explain why Syriza refused to consider a governmental alliance with any pro-memorandum party, including PASOK; why the RGA only gives critical support to the Danish centre-left government from the outside but did not join it; why, above all, the PCF voted last year, on its National Council, in a special conference and by an internal referendum, not to take part in the present SP-led government (the referendum of the membership produced a vote of nearly 95 per cent against participation). Of course, in the recent past the PCF (in 1997-2002) and the PRC in Italy have participated in such governments.  Those were not in my opinion positive experiences.  More importantly, it seems clear that they are now considered by most members of the parties concerned as not to be repeated, though it would be foolish to rule out any governmental alliance with social-democrats under any circumstances. It would, however, be more true today to say that the ambition of the parties of the EL is to change the balance of forces on the left, to replace social democracy as the dominant force. Thirdly, the objective of going beyond capitalism and of a socialist society is not in doubt. Let us see what the French Communist Party says about it:

“To those who speak of moralizing capitalism in order better to keep it, we say that the enterprise is vain and that the manoeuvre will not work.

Money has no conscience. Capitalism is incapable of offering any other perspective than the enslavement of the vast majority of human beings.

To those who call on us to be reasonable and who propose to regulate capitalism, we say that it is an illusory goal. Without the will to take power from the financial markets and the big capitalists, experience has shown that there is no significant result. There is a contradiction that is increasingly unbearable between capitalism and social progress, between capitalism and democracy, between capitalism and cultural development, between capitalism and ecology, between capitalism and peace.

That is why we talk about revolution. A social, citizens’,peaceful, democratic revolution, and not the taking of power by a minority. A process of credible and ambitious change, aiming to break with the logic of the system. That is why we speak of communism, a communism for a new generation”. (Extract from the political resolution of the 36th congress of the PCF, February 2013, my translation).

(I have quoted this because it is particularly clear, coming from one of the main parties of the European Left. But the aim of replacing capitalism rather than reforming it is shared by other parties, formulated more or less clearly).

Now you can, if you wish, say that the PCF is reformist. But on the basis of the above, you can hardly accuse it of being simply in favour of a modified form of capitalism. And as for reformism…Perhaps Ford has a very clear idea about the demarcation between reform and revolution in Europe today. Quite a few other people think they have. I think things are rather more complicated than that. There is the small detail that there has never been a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country with a more or less long tradition of bourgeois democracy. Never, nowhere. The strategy and tactics for making one will have to be developed in the course of the struggle and they will be very different from Russia in 1917, not to mention China, Vietnam, Cuba, Yugoslavia. They will certainly involve a combination of mass mobilizations and battles on the electoral terrain and in parliamentary institutions. That will involve in particular winning a majority in elections based on universal suffrage, and not only once. In fact it is difficult to see a revolutionary process that does not involve a left alliance winning an election. All of that will be the subject of debates based on experience, and no one has a blueprint. Rather than establishing an a priori cleavage between reformists and revolutionaries it is better to look at what anti-capitalist measures a left government should take and how, how to mobilize support for them, how to counter economic sabotage and political pressures from the Right, etc. Not to mention what kind of a post-capitalist society we envisage.

Of course there are other forces on the left in Europe apart from the EL. But it is there that there is a dynamic and an opposition to neoliberal capitalism that presents an alternative on a European level and seeks to build a European social and political front.

Apart from the “orthodox” Communist parties I have mentioned, there are far-left organizations which remain outside broad fronts and coalitions like Syriza, the United Left and the Left Front. They tend to be somewhat marginalized as a result but continue to play a role. The NPA, after a promising start, paid a heavy price for not having understood the dynamic of the Left Front. But it still has some forces and is not, under its present leadership, opposed to common actions with the Left Front, as on the May 5 demonstration.

Britain

To conclude, just a few words on Britain. The failure of attempts to create a new force to the left of Labour are well-known. But the potential is there, as was clearly shown by the success of the SSP before the train wreck  of the Sheridan affair. Not only electoral success, but trade union support and even affiliation. And there are reasons for past failures. Arthur Scargill will go down in history as a courageous and principled working-class leader. But the failure of the SLP, which had real potential, was essentially due to his sectarian and Stalinist conception of how to organize the party. As for the Socialist Alliance-Respect sequence, both the SWP and the Socialist Party played extremely negative roles, as they also did, in alliance for once, in the crisis of the SSP. As for TUSC, it’s not a party, it’s not meant to be one, it’s meant to not be one, and it fulfils that role perfectly.

Ford says that “if the new Left Party succeeds, it will certainly represent a sociological first”. Maybe it will. It wouldn’t be the first win against the odds. Who would have bet on the success of a disparate collection of leftists in Denmark or Portugal? Or that Syriza would go from 4 per cent to 27 per cent in a few months? And you have to start with what you have. No new Arthur Scargill is on the horizon. Nor is any split from Labour. Leaving aside the Greens, there are three left organizations with memberships in four figures, say between 1,000 and 2,000 – the CPB, the SWP and the SP. None of them is likely to play a positive role in building a new party, to put it mildly. So if you have a few thousand signatures and eighty or a hundred local groups, that’s what you start with. Or you could give up and join the Labour Party. But I’ll leave the argument against that to others.

(1)   For an overview of the new parties of the Left in Europe and a detailed look at several of them, see Kate Hudson, The New European Left, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

 

A Marxist Case for an Independent Scotland

Yes

Eddie Cornock writes on the Marxist arguments for independence.

Marxists have an ambivalent attitude towards the national question. On the one hand, they are wary of the dangers of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ whereby the ruling class employ a divide and conquer strategy to split people by language, race, ethnicity, or religion, so as to distract the working class from engaging in a class struggle against their capitalist oppressors. On the other hand, Marxists defend the right of ‘oppressed’ nations to self-determination, up to and including independence, because, as Lenin explained, ‘nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice’. (The Collected Works of V I Lenin, Volume 36, pp 608-609)

On the question of Scottish independence, the Left in Scotland is similarly caught on two minds. There are those in the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) who maintain that independence would disunite the British working class and only go to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. However, others on the Left, most notably in the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Communist Party of Scotland (CPS), believe that the breakup of the British state is a precondition for securing progressive, socialist change for the residents of these islands since it would open up opportunities for the Left, both in Scotland and south of the Border, to promote a radical political agenda that otherwise would remain excluded from mainstream politics.

In this essay, the following questions will be addressed with the aim of building a Marxist case for an independent Scotland:

• What is Scotland’s current status?

• How did Scotland lose its independence?

• What support has there been for Scottish self-determination?

• What’s the Marxist perspective on the national question?

• Is there a Marxist case for Scottish independence?

Scotland’s current status

Scotland is a country (i.e. a geographical region) that occupies the northern third of the island of Great Britain and is part of the sovereign state known as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK). It has a population of just over five million, compared to 52 million for England, 3 million for Wales and 2 million for Northern Ireland which make up the other parts of the UK. Although it lost its status as an independent nation-state when it became a constituent part of the UK over 300 years ago, few if any would deny that Scotland remains a nation.

Under the terms of the Acts of Union of 1707 that created the UK, Scotland’s legal system constitutes a distinct jurisdiction in public and private law from those of England and Wales and Northern Ireland. The continued existence of legal, and also educational and religious institutions distinct from those in the remainder of the UK have all contributed to the continuation of Scottish culture and national identity since the Union of Parliaments.

In 1999, a devolved legislature, the Scottish Parliament, was created with tax varying powers (i.e. power to vary (down or up) the basic rate of UK income tax by up to 3p in the pound) and authority over many areas of home affairs following a referendum in 1997. However, as Enoch Powell once observed: ‘Power devolved is power retained’, and consequently the devolutionary settlement for Scotland has had only a limited impact in terms of UK government arrangements and Parliamentary business at Westminster. There remains in place a Secretary of State for Scotland in the Cabinet, and at Westminster, Scottish Question Time, and a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and a Scottish Grand Committee, both of which have a complement of English Conservative MPs to ensure that party balance reflects the overall balance in the House of Commons.

Be that as it may, in 2011, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won an overall majority at the Scottish Parliament and as a result a referendum on independence is to be held in the autumn of 2014. This will determine whether Scotland becomes once again a sovereign nation-state or remains a constituent part of the UK.

Scotland’s loss of independence

Tradition has it that Scotland emerged as a sovereign kingdom in 843 under the rule of Kenneth MacAlpin although this is now disputed by historians. What is not disputed is that his successors during the Middle Ages ruled a unified kingdom roughly corresponding to the geographic boundaries of modern day Scotland.

When King Alexander III, died in 1286 he left an infant granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway as the heir to the Scottish throne. However, Margaret herself died four years later in a tragic shipwreck en route to Scotland. Following the death of Margaret, an opportunity arose for Edward I of England to place a puppet king, John Balliol, on the Scottish throne. When a rebellion broke out against Edward’s suzerainty, he sent troops to subjugate Scotland.

The resulting Wars of Scottish Independence were fought in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Scotland’s ultimate victory in the Wars of Independence under the leadership of Robert the Bruce confirmed Scotland as a fully independent and sovereign kingdom.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English and Irish thrones when his aunt, Queen Elizabeth I, died childless. Although there was a Union of the Crowns, Scotland continued to be ruled as a separate state for the next century.

On 1 May 1707, however, Scotland entered into an incorporating political union with England to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This union resulted from the Treaty of Union agreed in 1706 and enacted by the twin Acts of Union passed by the Parliaments of both countries, despite popular opposition and anti-union riots in Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland. Therefore, from 1707, Scotland ceased to exist as an independent sovereign state.

Support for Scottish self-determination

The 1787 massacre of striking weavers by British soldiers in Calton, which then was a village in the outskirts of Glasgow, is generally recognised as marking the beginning of an organised, Scottish labour movement. The Calton weavers’ banner on the day of the massacre showed Scotland’s national hero from the Wars of Scottish Independence, William Wallace, striking down the beast of tyranny.

Scots Wha Hae was written by Robert Burns, Scotland’s Bard, in 1793 to give covert support to those like Thomas Muir of Huntershill who were being persecuted for their republican and nationalist views. It has since been adopted as the SNP party song on account of its strong patriotic sentiments.

Burns deliberately, if obliquely, with Scots Wha Hae set out to support the radical movement against the reactionary Pitt government in London and its despotic manager in Scotland, Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville.

Another indication that there has been a longstanding popular struggle for Scottish self-determination was the Radical War of 1820. This ill-fated insurrection and general strike rallied workers behind the slogan “Scotland Free or a Desert”.

That tradition was carried into the 20th century by the likes of the pioneering trade unionist and politician, James Keir Hardie, who managed to secure a commitment to Scottish home rule from the political parties he helped create, namely the Scottish Labour Party, Independent Labour Party and the British Labour Party.

Perhaps most notably of all, the struggle for worker’s rights and Scottish self-determination was upheld by the Red Clydeside leader and Marxist teacher, John Maclean, who called for an independent Scottish Socialist Workers’ Republic. He believed that workers in Scotland could develop in a revolutionary direction more swiftly than their counterparts in England and Wales since Scottish society had been structured along the lines of “Celtic communism” in the past. He argued that “the communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis” and raised the slogan “back to communism and forward to communism”.

An upsurge of Scottish nationalism occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. This coincided with the discovery of oil reserves in the North Sea that opened up the possibility of a prosperous future for an independent Scotland. However, what is often forgotten is that there was a manifestation of large-scale support for the principle of Scottish self-determination prior to the 1960s. Around two million Scottish people between 1947 and 1950 signed the Scottish Covenant which was a petition to the United Kingdom government to create a home rule Scottish parliament.

The national question

It’s a matter of historical fact that people typically based on shared culture, religion, history, language and ethnicity and living within recognised geographical boundaries have strived successfully to breakaway from the rule of perceived oppressors and form self-governing sovereign ‘nation-states’. Since World War Two, well over a hundred new independent states have joined the international community, most recently in 2011 with South Sudan.

The recognition of national struggles for independence led Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to develop a theory of the national question although it was left to Vladimir Lenin and others later on to provide detailed elaboration and development of the theory.

In the Communist Manifesto, written in late 1847, Marx and Engels explained that the coming into existence of new nation-states was the result of class struggle, specifically of the capitalist class’s attempts to overthrow the institutions of the former ruling class and establish the economic, social and political conditions most conducive to their class needs.

Marx and Engels in their writings produced three themes which were to be important for the future development of the Marxist theory of national self-determination:

1. Only the national liberation of the oppressed nation enables national divisions and antagonisms to be overcome, and permits the working class of both nations to unite against their common enemy, the capitalists.

2. The oppression of another nation helps to reinforce the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie over workers in the oppressing nation-state: ‘A nation that enslaves another forges its own chains’. (Marx & Engels Collected Works, Volume 21 p120)

3. The emancipation of the oppressed nation weakens the economic, political, military and ideological bases of the ruling class in the oppressor nation-state and this contributes to the revolutionary struggle of the working class of that nation-state.

Lenin, building on the foundations laid by Marx and Engels and applying them to the new era of imperialism in the early years of the twentieth century, put great emphasis on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Through defending the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, he believed, socialists in oppressor states demonstrated solidarity with workers of oppressed nations and laid the basis for an internationalist, socialist-inspired alliance between the workers of all nations against their common enemy, the capitalist class.

Moreover, Lenin maintained that small nations, as Scotland is, could also play a role in defeating imperialism which he regarded as the highest stage of capitalism:

“The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat to make its appearance on the scene.” (The Collected Works of V I Lenin, Volume 22, p357)

Marxists, therefore, support the proliferation of nation-states to the extent that it results in the emancipation of oppressed nations and promotes a growing awareness among workers, both in oppressor and oppressed nations, of their shared interests in opposing the capitalist system. Once capitalism is abolished and there is a transition to socialism, Marxists believe, state structures will gradually be dismantled, resulting in a stateless, classless communist world society.

Arguments for Scottish independence

Tom Nairn, arguably Scotland’s most influential left-wing intellectual of recent times and the author of The Break Up of Britain, famously claimed that the theory of nationalism is Marxism’s greatest failure. What he meant was that although Marxist theory correctly identifies the capacity of nationalism as a divisive, reactionary force that diverts the proletariat from the class struggle against the bourgeoisie it, nevertheless, fails to recognise fully the potential nationalism also has as a progressive force.

A case in point is the issue of the ‘civic nationalism’ (aka as liberal nationalism) championed by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and others in their campaign for a Yes vote at the 2014 Independence Referendum. Is it effectively a form of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ that would serve the purposes of the ruling class by dividing British workers and preventing the working class from uniting against them? Something Marxists would want to oppose. Or does it open up new possibilities to create a fairer, more equal and more democratic society in Scotland that could then act as a beacon for the working class in the rest of the UK? Something Marxists would be inclined to support.

In answer to the first question posed above, if the aforementioned civic nationalism is, as critics on the Left maintain, just another form of bourgeois nationalism then one would expect the business community to be overwhelmingly in favour of Scottish independence. That is not the case as indicated in a speech by Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director-general John Cridland when he said: ‘CBI Scotland council is not convinced of the business and economic case for Scotland seceding from the Union and judges that businesses – Scottish, English, British – would lose out from the fragmentation of our single market.’ (London Evening Standard, 06.09.2012)

In answer to the second question, all three parties (i.e. SNP, SSP and the Scottish Green Party) affiliated to the Yes campaign have a track record of supporting progressive reforms. Moreover, both the SSP and the Greens in particular see themselves as parts of global movements dedicated to advancing progressive causes and can be said to have a broad internationalist outlook rather than a narrow (bourgeois) nationalist focus.

On the issue of Scotland breaking away from the rest of the UK, Marxists cannot argue for independence on the grounds that Scotland is an oppressed nation within the UK since there has been no systematic attempt by the British ruling class, in modern times at least, to deny Scottish people their democratic rights including the right to secede from the UK. However, there are other reasons for supporting Scottish independence from a Marxist perspective, not least that working people in Scotland, in common with those in other parts of the UK, pay a heavy price for being ruled by the British state. The price of remaining in the UK includes the following:

Britain has a permanent seat at the UN Security Council due in no small part to being the fourth highest military spender in the world with expensive nuclear weapons based on the Clyde. The tax money diverted to military spending by our political leaders to maintain the illusion that Britain remains a world power is money denied for much needed improvement of education, health and welfare provision.

Britain is a belligerent state that has been engaged in twenty-two separate wars and conflicts since the end of World War Two. British interventions in the likes of Iraq in 2003 until 2011 and in Afghanistan from 2001 until presently have been largely counter-productive but nevertheless costly in terms of money and more importantly, human suffering and lives.

Successive British governments’ adherence to neo-liberal ideas that free capital flows, a deregulated financial sector and powerful private banks would be good for the economy has proved a costly mistake to the tune of £1.2 trillion. That is the amount incurred by the public purse since 2008 to bail out banks and financial institutions that were on the verge of collapse. As a result of the bailouts creating a financial black hole for the Treasury, an austerity programme has had to be implemented involving massive public spending cuts, job losses and a decline in living standards for working families.

Britain is officially described as a ‘parliamentary democracy’ but, nevertheless, has a political system which includes many features that are far from democratic. For example, we are not citizens but subjects of a hereditary monarch, a Head of State by accident of birth, who is also commander-in-chief of our armed forces; sovereignty or political power in the British state is invested in the ‘Crown in Parliament’ and not with the people; we have an unelected second chamber in the British Parliament, the House of Lords; we have an electoral system that underpins a two-party system which offers voters little real democratic choice and often results in Scotland being ruled by a party decisively rejected by the Scottish electorate. As a consequence of features like those outlined above, there is a ‘democratic deficit’ in Britain which is in addition to the other shortcomings that people living in the UK have to endure.

There are distinct disadvantages of Scotland remaining a part of the British state for the Scottish population as outlined above but for Marxists the vital question is would Scottish independence open up new possibilities for socialist advance not only in Scotland but in the other nations of UK as well?

Scotland has had its own devolved Parliament and government since 1999 and already significant divergences from the rest of the UK are apparent. For example, unlike in England, people living in Scotland benefit from free medical prescriptions, free social care, and no tuition fees for universities as result of Scottish governments coming under stronger pressure to pursue social democratic policies than governments of the UK. Independence would give Scottish governments increased powers to formulate the social democratic policies required to tackle more effectively the complex social and economic problems that currently beset Scotland. The improved capacity to align Scottish government policies with Scotland’s values, needs and opportunities would be one of the greatest benefits of independence.

However, in the event of Scottish independence not only would there be a transformation of the economic, social and political contexts for Scotland but also important consequences for the rest of the UK. For example, Trident would have to leave the Clyde and probably be scrapped on cost grounds; the UK would have a diminished status on the international stage and would likely ‘shrink’ its foreign and security policies; the severe British anti-union legislation would go north of the border, and be undermined south of the border; the loss of the Scottish bloc of Labour MPs would initially favour the Conservatives at Westminster but, nevertheless, could provoke a significant political realignment resulting in a boost to progressive centre-left politics; Wales and Northern Ireland would become a smaller periphery to the UK’s core in England and might well look to establish greater levels of autonomy or even full-scale independence in the case of Wales.

Be that as it may, it is important to note that independence is not the same as ‘separation’. We live in an increasingly interdependent world in which national independence goes hand in hand with international interdependence. An independent Scotland would continue to have close economic ties, cultural links, and bonds of kinship with the other nations of the UK no matter what new constitutional arrangements are made. Moreover, there would be no reason why the ‘unity of the British working class’ could not be maintained through existing trades unions and social movements operating across borders as happens in Ireland and North America. They would have the opportunity to show the way cooperation across national boundaries could and should be pursued to further the interests of working people and their families in the ‘globalised’ world we live in.

Lastly, a widely held misapprehension, including by many on the Left who oppose Scottish independence, needs to be cleared up. While it is true that the SNP, a pro-capitalist party, is the main force driving the campaign for Scottish independence and that some of its policies for an independent Scotland are far from progressive (e.g. low corporate taxation, retention of the monarchy, staying in NATO, retention of the pound sterling and financial regulation from London), a Yes vote cast at the forthcoming independence referendum will NOT be an endorsement for the SNP and its vision for an independent Scotland. It will be a vote for independence and the opening up of a range of possibilities for Scotland in the future.

In the event of a majority Yes vote in 2014, then it is likely a two year period of intense political activity and realignment will ensue, culminating in an historic election at which Scottish voters will deliver their verdict as to which of the competing visions for an independent Scotland they prefer. There is no great certitude that the SNP by 2016 will have retained its present configuration and political identity and even less certainty that it will emerge victorious, happy and glorious after the first election to be held in an independent Scotland for over three hundred years.

Conclusion

From a Marxist point of view the most important question as regards nationalism is whether support for a specific national movement would advance the interests of the working class or not. When a struggle for national independence weakens the forces of imperialism and brings tangible benefits in terms of improved living standards and more democracy to the working class, then socialists should support the cause; when a nationalist movement justifies imperialism and threatens the advances secured by the working class, socialists should oppose it wholeheartedly.

Nationalism, therefore, has to be judged concretely, on the basis of the particular effects that its actions have in a specific context. In the case of Scotland, the choice at the forthcoming independence referendum is stark. Vote No and continue as before inside a neo-imperialist and reactionary British state that imposes legal restrictions on trade unionism, attacks the living standards of working people and provides military and diplomatic back-up for the USA to help maintain a neo-liberal world order. Or vote Yes and begin the dissolution of the UK in the name of political progress and social advance and in so doing help realise the potential for the Left not only in Scotland but across Britain that has for far too long lain largely untapped.